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Wilhelm FURTWÄNGLER (1886-1954)
Symphony No.2 in E minor (1947)
Staatskapelle Weimar/George Alexander Albrecht
Recorded Congress Centrum, Neue Weimarhalle, November 2003
ARTE NOVA 82876 57834 2 [52.40 + 28.54]

There is no lack of competition for Albrecht’s recording of Furtwängler’s best and most Brucknerian Symphony, the second. Begun after his escape from Germany in the last year of the War, it was completed in 1947. He recorded it with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1951 (only intermittently available but now back on DG Originals coupled with Schumann’s Fourth) though there was a live performance on Orfeo from 1953 with the Vienna Philharmonic that is even finer and more incandescent – and in good sound and currently still available on C375941. There’s also a Marco Polo of the Second with Alfred Walter conducting the BBC SO and, much better known, the relatively recent Chicago/Barenboim on Teldec.

This is late-Romanticism at its most blazing, one that very occasionally co-opts Brahms but whose greater and most intimate lineage is to the mid-century romantics through Bruckner and Wagner. From the wandering bassoon line that begins this eighty-minute work we hear a succession of consistently riveting but not always consistently cohesive effects; the beautiful slowing down of the traffic of material at about 6.50 for example and the stirring Brucknerian climaxes from 11.00 onwards. Or the sense of anticipation throughout the slow movement – where I find Brahms’ influence becomes more marked – or the Russophile Scherzo. The big finale – all twenty-eight minutes of it here and the longest movement of the symphony – is contained and separately tracked on the second CD. The burnished brass calls animate the movement, one in which climax is piled on climax; some occasional, wobbly intonation is preserved here. There is a moment or two of tentative trumpet entry points but in the main the orchestra proves worthy if no match for the Chicagoans.

Certainly the symphony is rich in counterpoint and chorale and preserves a direct line of descent from Bruckner; it breaks no new ground though it must shed light on Furtwängler. Of the performances I’ve heard I would go for Furtwängler (Orfeo –live) as a first choice and back it up with Barenboim. Honegger always maintained that this Symphony was scored by a master and even if one finds it unrelievedly opaque and single-minded, both in scoring and in direction, those words should count for something. Albrecht is a good guide who has recorded the First and problematic Third symphonies of Furtwängler, though his orchestra is not up to the standard of the best. As I say, try the composer-conductor first; it’s always a good place to start.

Jonathan Woolf

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